Since the spotlight hit him on the country stage in the early 1980s, Ricky Skaggs has continued to make his mark on the genre. He’s garnered two dozen Grammy and Country Music Association awards, and is set to collect an Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award on September 16. First, he will kick off a new season of UNCW Presents at Kenan Auditorium on Friday, September 11, at 7:30 p.m.
Honored alongside the likes of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Don Henley, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Los Lobos at the Ryman Auditorium, Skaggs is getting the nod as an instrumentalist. The Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes the mandolin player’s role in the promotion and popularity of bluegrass.
“I always try not to think too much about awards, especially when they have ‘lifetime achievement’ attached to it,” Skaggs quips. “It is pretty special. . . . I am thankful for it, and I can say, ‘Yes, I did that. I was a part of that. Thank God.’”
Skaggs is at his busiest, touring and traveling the most he has in years. He started his journey at a mere 5 years old, playing music with his family before he met bluegrass founder Bill Monroe at age 6. Skaggs dedicated two albums to the icon: “Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe” (2000) and “Sing the Songs of Bill Monroe” (2002). Skaggs also appeared on “The Flatt and Scruggs TV Show” at 7.
“Those people meant a lot to me,” he tells. “And, of course, the Stanley Brothers impacted my life as mountain singers . . . the music stuck to my heart, and still does.”
For more than 50 years, Skaggs has played solo and embarked on numerous musical collaborations. He’s played with everyone from Alison Krauss to Tony Rice (1980’s “Skaggs & Rice”) to Bruce Hornsby (“Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby,” 2007) to Emmylou Harris. “Those are some important records, too,” he says of his time in Harris’s Hot Band. Skaggs wrote the arrangements on the bluegrass-roots album “Roses in the Snow” (1980).
“The way she was trying to play and record good music . . . I think it kicked the door down for a lot of people that wanted to try to travel outside the lines a little bit,” he says. “Seems like every bluegrass band I was in, there was always some cool things I got to be a part of. J. D. Crowe and Tony Rice and that whole New South record was one of those monumental records for that Alison Krauss generation—people younger than me, obviously.”
When Skaggs arrived in Nashville to start his own country career, he wanted to bring traditional music back to the mainstream. “The ‘urban cowboy’ sound kind of homogenized country,” Skaggs details. “Traditional country started getting kicked to the side.”
Though he doesn’t often hear as much of the old bluegrass and country he loved as a kid, Skaggs admires what many emerging artists have done for the genre over the years. They’re making their own unique sound, as heard with Sam Bush or Nickel Creek’s contemporary take on folk and bluegrass. Skaggs doesn’t let nostalgia and respect for tradition negate what’s happening with progressive bluegrass or “new” grass.
“I can tell you what Mr. Monroe said about new grass: ‘I hate that,’” Skaggs laughs. “I don’t hate it. I love anybody that respects the old, yet tries to carve a niche for themselves and tries to come up with something that’s theirs. I don’t mind the new grass, just don’t kick the old to the curb.”
The famed mandolin player is touring with his band Kentucky Thunder, as well as doing tour dates with his wife, Sharon White, and guitarist Ry Cooder. Nevertheless, he’s ready to rejoin his band at Kenan Auditorium. They’re a younger group of players, featuring guys in their 20s and 30s.
“I’m the oldest cat around,” he says, “and I remember when I was the youngest guy in my band. It’s been good to see the growth—and see the gray—but it’s been really good musically. They’ve all got great ideas, and they all play so well. It stretches me, it pushes me to try to stay up on my game. I don’t know it all, there’s no way I do. And I’ve always been inspired by the musicians I’m around. They play off of me and I play off of them; it’s a wonderful thing.”
Skaggs’ strong faith in Christianity, for which he credits his craft to and draws inspiration from, is often projected in his work. It can be heard in the gospel he frequently plays.
“My relationship with Jesus is just as much a part of my life as breathing, my heart beating, my blood pumping, because in reality, He has every heartbeat in his hand,” the musician shares. “Music is a gift that God gave me and I want to be a good steward of that. ”
Skaggs released a gospel album in 2010 called “Mosaic.” He will be recording another in the same vein soon. In the meantime, he and his wife of 34 years released a record called “Hearts Like Ours” in 2014. It was a project the couple wanted to do since winning a CMA Duo of the Year for “Love Can’t Be Better Than This” in 1987.
“We worked together on every aspect, which was wonderful,” he says. “It was so much more than a check off the bucket list, we felt like it was the right time to do it. We’ve been trying to find the right songs. Songs about love, songs about marriage, and songs about our life with the Lord.”
As well, Skaggs is in pre-production on a record with Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum, along with her parents. “We’re going into the studio around October to start cutting some tracks,” he says. “I want to do another record with Kentucky Thunder, too. I haven’t done a bluegrass record in quite a while and I want to do it with my band.”